The boys’ Varsity Basketball team’s 70-68 victory over Amman Academy tonight, as some of the players describe it, was a “surprise,” and “unexpected.” The game was close, and the outcome remained uncertain until—literally—the last second. But there was one person who had a very good feeling the Lions were going to win. A certain Nihal senior, who requested anonymity, believed so strongly that the boys had it in them, perhaps more than Coaches Derek and Iyad, or even the players themselves, that he placed a whopping bet (of a three-figure sum, he later claimed) on the Lions to defeat the Amman Academy Knights and bring home the 2016 Amman Athletic Conference cup.
Twenty-four hours after a thrilling overtime victory over Amman Bishop’s School in the semifinal, the Lions were nervous. “I was afraid,” admitted Lukman Abdul Halim ’17. “Not only was I thinking like that, but so were many other players.” They were coming off two straight wins in the tournament, including a double-digit victory over the Knights just two days earlier, but this game would be different: three of the Knights’ starting five, players for the national team, had been absent in the Monday matchup. “Before the game, khalas, I thought we had no chance,” said Ibrahim Akeel ’18. “But when the game actually came, I tried my best and never gave up. Everyone did so. And although we were losing, we wanted to win—we kept the score very close.” Team captain Rayan Badrie ’16 voiced a similar sentiment: “Honestly, we had nothing to lose. We wanted to win, too. So we just showed what we’ve got.”
In a dark, well-ventilated room, the Nihalist explained that he’s been observing the team for their entire 15-game season, and paying especially close attention in all 3 games of this week’s tournament. The defining factor, said our anonymous bettor, that made him so confident was the team’s chemistry: “The team works well together and there’s no one player that stands out. All the other teams have an MVP. For our team, the whole team is the MVP.”
Coach Derek Lief certainly agrees: “I think they definitely developed an identity as a team. They got big and strong, on the inside and on the outside, they learned how to drive, and they learned how to create, and I think we became a team. There’s really no—and it’s a cliché—no one guy who you would say is our go-to [player]. Each night it’s a different guy, different players stepping up all the time.”
Yesterday, that player was Yazan Aryan ’18, who stepped up and helped carry the team to their win in the semifinal. Tonight, in the fourth quarter, another one of those players was Chanwoo Park ’17, who overcame several turnovers in the first half and sparked the Lions’ comeback from a 10-point deficit with three decisive 3-pointers, in addition to drawing a foul for a three-point play, sending the home crowd into ecstasies. Asked about the comeback, Coach Iyad Abu-Touq remarked, “I tried to encourage the team. I talked to the players individually and told them what I wanted specifically. Fortunately for us, Chanwoo performed brilliantly in the last 5 minutes of the game.”
Rayan, reflecting on his final season with the Lions, declared himself “honored to play on this team,” calling them “perfect throughout the season.” Despite concerns about the relative youth of this year’s Lions squad and their lack of a ‘big man,’ it was the team with “no star players” who prevailed tonight, and throughout the season. “Our team was not a one-man team,” Rayan continued. “I also appreciate the players, like Lukman, who tried to play down low.” Lukman scored crucial points from underneath the basket, including several following offensive rebounds, while sophomores Ibrahim Akeel and Omar Abdelaal handled the role of ‘big man’ just fine, thank you very much. With such promising young talent, including freshman Hoshing Lau, and a core of veterans set to return next season, the future looks bright for this Lions squad.
The home crowd played a bigger role in this game than it usually does; whereas most home games take place while other students are participating in co-curricular activities of their own, the 6:30 tip-off (delayed by an exciting overtime finish to the third-place game between Modern American School and Bishop’s School) on the Wednesday before spring break brought scores of students and faculty to the stands, including Dean of Students Ms. Julianne Puente. Although the crowd was timid at first—seemingly unsure of whether to make their presence known, or how to counter the “De-fense” chant taken up by the Knights’ bench—they were vociferous in their support when the team needed it most: dozens the most die-hard fans, who remained after a small exodus of freshmen around 7:45 check-in, crowded up to the edge of the balcony at the beginning of the fourth quarter and roared in approval at every basket, block, and steal until the final buzzer. Lukman and Ibrahim agreed that the support from the crowd helped the team “play better,” and Coach Iyad expressed his thanks to the fans “for cheering us although we were down by 10. The atmosphere was amazing. The crowd was [the sixth man] today.”
Sure, the Lions could have played a more aggressive defense for the first half, and they could have been more aggressive in defending AA’s sharpshooter who had three 3-pointers of his own, but in the end, what mattered most is the team chemistry, and the team’s resilience. It was a long, intense game, ending in a standoff in the fourth quarter with the scoreboard inching up point by point. Ultimately, the Lions proved their skill, their talent, and, most importantly, the strength of their team. “Basketball is a team sport,” said Coach Iyad. “It’s not an individual game. As a team, we cooperated better than the opponent did.” As the game concluded with the entire team circling around center court, swaying arm-in-arm as they grunted celebratory chants, we were reminded of what made them defeat Amman Academy for the AAC Championship, what made them run a season with fourteen wins and a single loss, and what made a certain Nihal senior’s wallet a little heftier—their spirit and resilience.
Rami Rustom contributed reporting from Nihal.